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Vision for the future

Updated: 2014-05-15

Vision for the future

A staff doctor of the Flying Eye Hospital leads a patient on the aircraft operated by Orbis at the charity hospital's program in Jinan. [Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee / China Daily]

Flying Hospital has traveled to more than 90 countries, treating patients and teaching doctors how to detect early signs of vision problems. Mike Peters reports from Jinan, Shandong province.

Wang Shunwen sobs quietly on a hospital gurney as her mother strokes her hair and her surgeon looks on. Shunwen is 7 years old and she has just undergone her second surgery for bilateral congenital glaucoma in two days. "Think of an eye as an overflowing bathtub, with fluid constantly going in and out," says Dr James Brandt, an ophthalmology professor of surgery from the University of California-Davis. "Glaucoma prevents fluid from draining properly, so that creates tremendous pressure."

Brandt and his colleagues are huddled around Shunwen in a most unusual recovery room—literally a converted DC-10 aircraft operated by Orbis—the Flying Eye Hospital.

When the charity once known as Project Orbis was conceived in the 1970s, the idea was simple: The plane swoops into a community that lacked trained eye surgeons. Volunteer doctors would go to work on as many of the most desperate cases, as fast as they could.

However, most cases of blindness and visual impairment—experts say up to 80 percent—are avoidable or curable with good, early medical attention. The World Health Organization estimates that China has about 400,000 blind children, so 80 percent is a lot of sight that can be saved. That reality changed Orbis' global mission early on.

"Today, our main task is to be a teaching hospital," says Ahmed Gomaa, the amiable Egyptian who is medical director on the plane. At Gomaa's fingertips is an active list of more than 400 certified experts with teaching experience in ophthalmology, ophthalmic nursing, anesthesiology and biomedical engineering. Many give up a week or two each year to volunteer for an Orbis mission.

Since the Flying Eye Hospital's first mission came to Beijing in 1994, volunteer pilots from Fed Ex and Boeing have taken the plane to and from about 90 countries worldwide. Alcon, the eye-care products division of pharmaceutical giant Novartis, is sponsoring the Jinan visit.

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Link: China's Central Government / World Health Organization / United Nations Population Fund / UNICEF in China

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